Marie and I took a first look at the Toyota minivan that would serve as our transportation and sometimes-home for two weeks in New Zealand. We hadn’t expected it to be quite so old. “This thing has almost 300,000 miles on it!” I reported uneasily as we pulled out of the rental office in Auckland. Marie found papers saying it had been built in 1998.
Driving a 20th-century campervan on New Zealand roads took some getting used to. Keeping to the left side was an obvious challenge, but that turned out to be relatively low on my list of concerns. The steering wheel shook relentlessly. Braking downhill caused the van to shudder like Chuck Yeager’s jet approaching the sound barrier. The plates and utensils stored in the cabinets produced a violent rattling with every bump, turn, or stop. And, most alarmingly, I didn’t have a good sense of the van’s width. “You know you almost side-swiped those cars, right?” Marie asked after our first minute of driving.
We had a lot of road ahead of us. Our plan was to cross the North Island from Auckland to Wellington, stopping at interesting places along the way, and then take a ferry to the South Island, where we’d cut over to Wharariki Beach before dropping all the way down to Milford Sound and looping back to Christchurch. Exploring a new country with limited time always involves tradeoffs. Our whirlwind tour of so much of New Zealand would let us see a lot of the highlights, but it also meant we wouldn’t get to know any one place very well. And we’d average more than three hours of driving each day.
“Should we stop in the Shire?” I asked. Marie and I were torn. We’re both Lord of the Rings fans, and Matamata, the site Peter Jackson used for Bilbo and Frodo’s hometown, wasn’t far out of our way. But we usually try to avoid crowds and guided tours. Ultimately though we couldn’t pass up the chance to see Bag End, and we were glad we went. The movie set – torn down after Lord of the Rings but reconstructed more solidly for The Hobbit – was a lot of fun to experience in person. The fact that the Hobbiton tour concluded with beers at The Green Dragon was an unexpected bonus.
After the Shire we visited Rotorua, a geothermal area that felt like a much smaller-scale Yellowstone (minus the wildlife). We watched the Pohutu geyser erupt at Te Puia and then drove south to look around Wai-O-Tapu.
I was particularly excited about our next stop, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. I’d seen some amazing photos of Waitomo that showed massive cave tunnels lit by thousands of the luminescent bugs, and I had grand visions of the shots I’d be able to get. The reality turned out to be a little different. In the Ruakuri cave the glowworm effect looked nothing like the photos I’d seen, and I never had an opportunity to set up my tripod, which I would have needed to get a decent photo of the worms glowing in the darkness.
It was still cool to see the glowworms, and the engineering they used to make the cave accessible was more impressive than anything I’d encountered in places like Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave.
After Waitomo it was finally time to do some real hiking. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 12-mile trail that takes 6-7 hours, is often touted as New Zealand’s best day hike. We spent the night nearby in our campervan and then took an early morning shuttle to the trailhead at Mangatepopo. Amid a throng of other hikers we formed an almost unbroken line as we hit the trail. Popular hikes tend to be a mixed blessing – they’re usually well-known for a reason, but it’s no fun to deal with crowds.
Within a half hour we had our first good views of Mount Ngauruhoe, the active volcanic cone that (with some CGI modification) Peter Jackson used as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.
Two steep ascents took us up to the Red Crater Summit, with incredible views in all directions. And soon we could see the strikingly beautiful Emerald Lakes.
Marie, who was battling a foot injury, powered through the hike like a trooper. After a long descent we reached the Ketetahi parking lot, where we caught another shuttle back to our car. Beat but happy, we drove on to Wellington.
That night we stayed at the home of a Kiwi friend, Michael, who I’d met on a tour of the Galapagos Islands all the way back in 2001. He’d visited me a couple times in the Bay Area, and I was happy to be able to turn the tables. Michael and his girlfriend Laura live in Wellington with another couple, Andres and Samara, and Michael cooked a tremendous dinner for the six of us. It was great to see Michael and meet the others, and Marie and I were really impressed with Wellington. (I only realized later that my friend Kari also lives in Wellington, and I wished I’d been able to say hello to her as well.)
Early the next morning we checked in for our ferry ride to the South Island. “Thanks for your help,” I said to the guy who directed us onto the boat.
“No worries, chief!” he said with an especially thick New Zealand accent. I may or may not have tried to imitate him so often over the next week that Marie wanted to punch me.